A woman walks past a portrait of Jayalalithaa Jayaraman in Chennai. Photo: Reuters/Babu
A woman walks past a portrait of Jayalalithaa Jayaraman in Chennai. Photo: Reuters/Babu

Jayalalithaa Jayaram (JJ), who passed away on December 5, was an interesting development politician in Asia. Derided for her corruption, authoritarianism and other limitations, she needs to be seen as a development politician who did something for the poor people of the south Indian state of Tamilnadu. It is not as if hundreds of the poor were irrational in killing themselves over her perceived premature death.

JJ was an unchallenged upper caste Brahmin leader leading the ostensibly anti-Brahmin and predominantly lower caste political party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) ruled and ruling as Chief Minister the Indian state of Tamilnadu (population 70 million) for over 15 years.

A cine star turned politician, JJ was compared to Elizabeth Taylor in looks and glamour outshining ‘a host of caudillos, dictators and presidents for life in her grit, capriciousness, generosity, vindictiveness, charisma and greed’ (The Economist, December 10).

South Asia has produced many female politicians of distinction who came from upper classes and castes. The names of Indira and Sonia Gandhi (India), Sheikh Hasina (Bangladesh), Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan) and Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Sri Lanka), come to mind quickly.

JJ was unique in that she was of middle origin though with a good convent education fluent English unlike most Indian politicians. She had joined the cinema world to make a living and would perhaps have preferred a scholarly life. She had a ‘tempestuous’ career as a politicians as she herself said.

Surviving the ups and downs of politics in Tamilnadu, she was idolized as ‘Amma’ (‘mother’) for her multiple welfare schemes and hand outs for the rural and urban poor.

Unlike other Indian female politicians such as Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh or Mamata Banerji in West Bengal, also from ordinary families, JJ moved confidently among top Indian politicians. Some even held that JJ could have been a good Prime minister of India.

Vijayaraje Scindia, Chief Minister of Rajasthan who is from a royal family is not known for her welfare schemes for the poor.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or ‘Dravidian Progressive Federation’ had its origins in the Self-Respect Movement set up by EV Ramasamy in Tamilnadu in 1925.

CN Annadurai organised the DMK (1948), which is the mother of JJ’s All India Anna DMK (named after Annadurai) in the in the 1970s created by the legendary film star MG Ramachandran (MGR).

MGR started the AIADMK in protest against the charges of corruption levelled at of his senior party colleague M.Karunanidhi; he and became the popular Chief Minister of Tamilnadu.

The MGR era in Tamilnadu politics lasted during the 1970 and 1980s. JJ close to MGR as a film star joined his party.

When MGR died, JJ took over the leadership of the party and became Chief Minister in her turn. She was a key player in Tamilnadu politics rivalling M. Karunanidhi.

JJ was Chief Minister of Tamilnadu nearly continuously from 1991 to 2016.

The role of Sasikala, close aide to JJ became controversial during this period and serious charges of corruption were levelled against JJ.

During the 1990s, Indian policy shifted from welfare economics to market-economics embracing a neo-liberal policy that emphasised growth.

JJ’ record indicated the possibility of combining both welfare the new economic policy. She took over as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in July 1991 when the government of India, led by P V Narasimha Rao, initiated economic liberalization, shifting from Nehruvian policies.

The structural adjustment imposed on India by the International Monetary Fund did not much affect JJ’s welfarism in Tamilnadu under her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) rule in alliance with the Indian National Congress at the Center.

JJ persisted with her welfare scheme for the schoolchildren and expanded its scope. She also expanded the public distribution system and added more commodities to the basket of subsidized items.

The industrial sector of Tamilnadu expanded having recorded robust growth. The proliferation of small-scale industries resulted in vigorous growth in the state in the 1990s.

Reforms with a human face became a reality in Tamil Nadu and strengthened JJ’s political base.

However, JJ’s vulgar display of pomp and show during the marriage of her foster son affected her image. She was viewed as corrupt by the ruling Congress party at the Center. She was seen as bad company in the state. The Congress party broke away from the AIADMK and allied with its rival the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

JJ was defeated in her own constituency in the 1996 state assembly elections. She also landed up in prison with allegations of corruption in the functioning of almost every department of the state government.

However, in 1998, JJ returned to power after joining the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) proving that she could survive in Tamilnadu as a political force.

She shook the Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government at the Center by withdrawing support to it in April 1998. She teamed up with the Congress in 1999 aligning with smaller parties in the state and returned to power in 2001.

JJ won the 2011 state assembly elections by forming an alliance with smaller parties and seized political power from her rival the DMK.

JJ will be remembered for her political opportunism, her authoritarianism in making her supporters were made to prostrate themselves before her in full public glare.

Although she was acquitted in almost all the corruption cases against her, the fact that the state’s high court held her and her aide Sasikala guilty of violating the law causing losses to the state government was significant.

More recently, JJ was behind bars in Bengaluru in a disproportionate assets case.

Her term as chief minister during 1991-1996 was marked by violence against members of the deprived and exploited Dalit community across the state.

The perpetrators of the violence belonged to the community of JJ’s aide Sasikala with the complicity of the state machinery.

The space that JJ had given to her aide Sasikala and her community in inflicting violence against the deprived would haunt her party and government during the remaining time of its tenure.

A section of the people though would remember “Amma” for having ensured that they got bottled drinking water, food at nominal prices and other items including flour, edible oil, mixer-grinders, table fans and the like.

Kadayam Subramanian

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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